Tuesday, January 6, 2015

In Memoriam: Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan

[purchase New Barbarians-Buried Alive: Live in Maryland]

Unfortunately, every year, we lose legendary musicians, people whose names are instantly recognizable, and we also lose a larger number of unheralded performers. And then there are guys like the two I’m writing about—Bobby Keys and Ian McLagan—who were sort of famous. If you are reading a music blog, you’ve probably heard of them, but stop someone (of a certain age) on the street, they would be more likely to have heard of, say, Joe Cocker (who died a couple of weeks later and employed both men) than either one of today’s subjects.

It is one of those strange coincidences that these two men, both of whom were associated with the Rolling Stones, died on consecutive days. Keys died on December 2, 2014 of cirrhosis and McLagan died from a stroke on December 3, 2014. And while they were both known as Stones sidemen, and performed together, their lives and careers were quite different.

Bobby Keys was the classic sideman. Born on December 18, 1943 near Slaton, Texas, Keys (which is his real last name) began touring as a sax player when he was 15, playing with, among others, another Texas boy, Buddy Holly. Keys met the Rolling Stones in 1964 and became friendly with Keith Richards, who was born on the very same day. Keys and Richards shared a love of music, mind altering substances and mischief. It was Keys and Richards who notoriously threw a television from a hotel window, and he toured with the band for years. Keys was also the best man at Mick Jagger’s wedding to Bianca. However, he was booted from the band for a while when he, supposedly, filled a bathtub with Dom Perignon, and then drained it. This was a stunt that reportedly annoyed Jagger. However, Keys was back on the team in the late 1980s, and toured with the Stones until recently.

But it was not only his partying personality that made Keys a popular sideman—he could play, adding the iconic sax solos to many tunes, notably “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” He played with innumerable other acts, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, Delaney & Bonnie, all of the Beatles and Yoko, Joe Cocker, Warren Zevon, Sheryl Crow, Jim Carroll, Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, John Hiatt, Graham Nash, and on and on. He was part of Lennon’s “Lost Weekend,” appeared in the film Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and while he released two solo albums, he will always be best remembered as a hired gun—if one of the top guns. Unfortunately, it appears that his hard living finally did him in, and he passed away on December 2 in Franklin, Tennessee.

Ian McLagan was born on May 12, 1945, 16 years to the day before me, in Hounslow, England. A gifted keyboard player, McLagan bounced through a few bands, including one fronted by future King Crimson/Bad Company member Boz Burrell, until he was hired in 1965 for a pittance to replace the keyboard player in a band called the Small Faces. After finishing his probationary period, he joined the band, and took a pay cut. Along with Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane, and Kenney Jones, McLagan created a body of music that still stands up today. And after Marriott left the band, and Rod Stewart and Ron Wood joined the reconstituted Faces, who reached further heights of popularity before breaking up. McLagan participated in various full and partial Small Faces and Faces reunions over the years. Although initially he left the songwriting chores to others, ultimately, McLagan wrote a number of classics, including “Stay With Me.”

In the mid-1970s, McLagan agreed to join Wood and record and tour with the Stones, apparently turning down the chance to join Kenney Jones in the Who. Tough choice. With the Stones, he contributed, among other things, the piano part to “Miss You.” He also appeared with or recorded with Chuck Berry, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Westerberg, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Frank Black, John Hiatt, and many others, and recently had significant involvement in Lucinda Williams’ latest album, Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone.

Unlike Keys, though, McLagan enjoyed being in or leading a band, rather than being a session musician. He formed the Bump Band, starting in the late 1970s, and he released a number of solo albums as well as recording with the Empty Hearts featuring Eliot Easton of the Cars and Clem Burke of Blondie. He was scheduled to be a part of Nick Lowe’s Quality Holiday Revue along with Los Straitjackets when he was felled by a stroke, in Austin, where he had lived for two decades, and had become an integral part of the local music scene.

The video above is one of a number of crappy videos that are available on YouTube of performances from a 1979 tour by The New Barbarians, a band featuring Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Stanley Clarke on bass, drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste of The Meters, Keys and McLagan. Through the fuzz, you can see both of our subjects playing their hearts out and getting a bit of the glory (while the spotlight remains mostly on Richards and Wood).

The passing of Keys and McLagan, though, raises one significant question—how the hell is Keith Richards still alive?

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